An Entrepreneurial Read: The Open Organization

An open organization is the opposite of the traditional top-down hierarchy; in an open organization, things bubble up from the "bottom" and leadership treats employees differently. In an open organization, everyone in the company understands the big picture for its future, leadership make decisions with input from others, and the company as a whole is more innovative. Open organizations compete in today's markets in a totally different way than traditional companies.

Red Hat, which provides open source solutions, is one such open organization. Others include Google, The Body Shop and Whole Foods. Jim Whitehurst, the CEO of Red Hat, has literally written the book on the concept. The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance is a starter kit for operating such a business. It introduces the concepts that make an open organization work: passionate, engaged workers; meritocracy where team members share their best ideas and others qualify them; and, inclusive decision making processes.

The author clearly does his best to explain how an open organization is built, though sometimes the explanation seems to fall flat. A reader wrote in his review on Goodreads that Whitehurst's book "is like your dad coming in and talking about Regina Spektor music. He knows he likes it -- it's got a great beat that he can tap his foot to, and he really gets the lyrics -- but it's not his world. It's your world. And he'll never quite understand it." It's not far from the truth. Still, the book includes some great anecdotes about Red Hat and other companies that employ an "open organization" structure.

If you're looking to build an open organization, you can learn from these anecdotes. For instance, that of Red Hat's "We Are Red Hat Week," an annual celebration of the company's people, culture and brand. It's a great initiative: each year, they plan festivities to take place at offices around the world over the course of a week. The events are recorded and included in a quarterly in-house production called, "The Show," which highlights the company's people and accomplishments.

Whitehurst shares a story of how Red Hat leverages existing employees to find new Red Hatters. They reward their associates for each referral who is hired; the rewards levels are detailed in the book.

The insights Whitehurst provides in his book may be most helpful to businesses with any size team, but even if you're a solo entrepreneur just starting to build your team, you'll come away with some usable information.

In Chapter 1, Whitehurst writes about purpose statements, sharing some wonderful examples including Disney's statement, "To use our imagination to bring happiness to millions," and Charles Schwab's, "A relentless ally for the individual investor." Red Hat's purpose statement is "To be the catalyst in communities of customers, contributors, and partners creating better technology the open source way." I walked away from reading with a renewed focus for my own mission statement, which can guide the decisions I make when adding to my team and can guide those team members to make the best decisions to help my business achieve the goals I've set for it.

Additionally, there are some great insights on igniting passion and building engagement when you do have a team.

Whitehurst's tips to ignite passion:

  • Lead by example, perhaps especially when you seek to inspire passion in your team members.
  • Develop a mission statement for your business.
  • Use words to express your passion; add "love," "hate," "excited" and "upset" to your work vocabulary.
  • Learn to interview candidates to find out where their passions lie. Whitehurst suggests questions such as, "What are you passionate about?" and "What inspires you?"
  • Encourage silliness, especially at events, and be silly yourself. Have fun.

Whitehurst's tips to build engagement:

  • Interact with others with the belief that everyone is responsible for his or her contributions and performance to everyone else.
  • If you're the boss or a manager, provide context for the team. If you're a team member and feel you need context, ask for it.
  • If your company has tools for internal communications, use them. If not, do research and suggest tools for your company (or department) to use.

If you're looking for a good business book to dive into, add this to your list.

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Rosella LaFevre is a marketing consultant. Through her signature 6-month VisiBiz VIP program, she helps female entrepreneurs share the value of their work and serve even more clients by getting them clarity on their marketing, sales and pricing strategies and holding them accountable to building the life and business of their dreams.